Psychology for the animator – Mind over pencil

Animation, like any art form, is a medium for presenting ideas. A lot of psychology is concerned with the study of communication, the way we perceive the world around us, how we attend to it, and how we process and react to sensory stimuli. Some understanding of psychology can thus help animators when communicating their ideas on film, writes Christopher Barnatt.

Like animation, psychology is a discipline that can be studied for life, thus I can only scratch the surface of its uses for the animator here. Hopefully, however, I can introduce some different avenues of thought for exploration in developing your productions.

Let us start on the basic perceptual level, we know animation is made possible by the ‘persistence of vision’ – i.e. that a series of still pictures presented quickly in succession can give us the illusion of movement. This occurs for two reasons. Firstly, the brain can only process images so quickly – if you present different pictures fast enough, the brain does not have time to perceive them as separate still images.

Secondly, and often overlooked, is the fact that the retina on which the image is focused in the back of the eye is like any other photo-sensitive surface, and that an image takes time to fade from it. When you watch a series of frames at normal speed one picture has not completely faded away before the next is ‘arriving’ on the retina: thus, in a way, frames are dissolving from one to the next.

Now let us consider whether animation is perceived as ‘smooth’ or flickering. Illustration (a) shows the position of a ball in five consecutive frames of animation, each to be presented for just one frame. Each picture overlaps the one before, thus the images of the ball on the retina will overlap: the animation should not flicker.

In (b) the motion is achieved in just three pictures at two frames each, the images will flicker as individual positions do not overlap. Note it is not because we are now dual-framing that the ball flickers, the five positions in (a) could be shot on doubles and would probably not flicker.

Illustration (c) is like (a) except the ball is now coloured in rather than just outline. This sequence will appear smoother than (a)

and slower. The solid ball produces a greater change in the retinal image. In (d), ‘blur’ has been added to the frames in (b) note that it extends just over the previous position, to produce an overlap in the retinal image: the animation should not flicker. Illustration (e) is a lateral solution to stop flicker and use less positions than in (a) make the ball bigger so consecutive positions do overlap! I hear the purists screaming, but such a change can save a lot of time, paper, cels and painting. Other solutions could be to stretch the ball so consecutive positions overlap, or to change the angle of motion so that the ball comes towards us, with one position covering the other.

Finally, if an object has to move quickly across screen and positions can not overlap
(even on singles), make the object’s line work and colouring as complex as possible. This means the brain is more likely to perceive the different frames as the same object moving, rather than as different objects flickering in and out of existence. Complex objects are more likely to create patterns that the brain will recognise again. A simple object may just be seen as different ‘blobs’ of colour flicking on and off the screen.

To summarize, providing a reasonable frame-change rate is used (24 fps, 12 fps (doubles) or maybe even 8 fps (shooting triples), the main factor that affects the smoothness of animation is consecutive image overlap – not the speed of motion across the field. Solid, complex objects will invariably flicker less.

“Communication”, psychology tells us, “is the power to create shared understandings.” These can be achieved in many ways, not just by the use of actions and words. “Emotional expressions must be met by emotional expressions” is a phrase to bear in mind when animating more than one character on screen at a time. Each must be orientated on gesture and posture to both the situation occurring and to the actions of the other character.

When two people (or mice or purple-spotted dragons for that matter) are animated conversing, turn-talking should be seen to occur: the two characters must switch between active and attending. Such a switch will not appear natural ii it is indicated only by one stationary head stopping talking and another starting to speak – turn-talking is not a simple on/off ‘cut’. In many ways it is more important to animate the ‘listening character’ than the speaking one if the listener is not seen to react to the speaker a shared understanding will not be portrayed, no emotional link between the characters will be perceived, and thus how can the audience be expected to relate to them and their situation?

Psychologists have observed shared, locked-rhythms in existence when people communicate – both in spoken and non-spoken language. Cues in communication exchanges (the tilting of the head, the raising of eyebrows, the movement of a hand), which usually occur subconsciously, allow those involved in communication to anticipate when the active to attending switch will occur. Such cues, when animated into one character, should also be seen to invoke a response from the other, a reciprocal move allowing one emotional expression to be met by another.

Watch people in conversation. When one person makes a movement whilst talking, almost always the listener will move too: shifting weight from one foot to another, tilting their head, and so on.

Psychologists using very high speed photography have shown that people react to each others subconscious moves in a matter of milliseconds. Having the speaker tilt his head, then the listener move his hand a second later may mean movement is introduced into a shot over a longer time, but it will not give as great an impression of a real, meaningful conversation as running the two actions simultaneously.

So when characters are interacting, always consider their reactions to each other. When producing character, emotion and involvement in a film, small, carefully planned reactions are frequently more important than the main action itself.

Over the years animation has developed its own language. We all accept the appearance of a thought bubble, or that if an object flies off-field and the screen shakes, that a collision has occurred (regardless of sound effects). This may sound obvious, but these are examples of the use of a visual language that we have learned from watching films. The whole world does not rebound if a mouse hits a wall – but we accept that the collision has occurred if indeed it does shake.

Many artists these days seem reluctant to use what I would term the “classic cartoon language” in their work – “a light bulb flashing above a characters head is silly isn’t it?” It may be, but like it or not we all infer that the character has just had an idea, possibly saving a lot of time and cels that can be better used elsewhere in the film.

Some pictures demand more attention than others. But which ones? A psychologist called Fantz in the 1950s did experiments to investigate what images babies pay most attention to. Although the experiments were to study how babies’ attention spans were developing, the results, although not surprising, should be remembered.

The most attended to pictures were found to be patterned, coloured, moving, three-dimensional, sound accompanied, self-deforming (e.g. a fist opens into a hand), and a little unpredictable. Faces were thus highly attended to – possessing all these properties. The extra interest colour, pattern and contrast add to pictures should not be ignored. Colouring a film in and using complex line work adds more to a film than just ‘art quality’, the extra movement often seen in outline-only films is necessary if they are to demand the attention of more visually complex coloured productions.

I have tried to cover some of the areas of animation development where I frequently think in psychological terms. A psychologist is really just somebody who looks at the world in a different way – watching the audience rather than the show. As animators we are creating the show. The more disciplines we can use to look at the world around us, the more interest and realism we can inject into our films. Good animators and psychologists have one great thing in common – both spend most of their time thinking.

Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)